The quest for every percentile of gain in bike development by the top teams in the Tour de France intensifies each year.
The development is driven by the belief that the smallest advantages can make a winning difference even as Tour champion Cadel Evans believes the scope for improvement becomes less with every gain due to Union Cycliste Internationale's laws on frame design and the minimum weight limit of 6.8kg on race bikes. The laws do not limit the amount of money spent on research and development, but they do cap the value of a Tour bike to about US$10,000 even though machines used in non-UCI rated events can be twice as valuable, if not more.
"Any race where the level is so high and the difference between the best -- or the winner, and second or third place -- is so close, you, of course, look at every 10th of a percentile difference you can get, whether that is with equipment [including the bike] or training ... whatever you can," Evans tells ESPN. Evans' opinion on the topic is noteworthy as a rider who won the Tour in 2011 after twice placing second -- in 2007, an agonising 23 seconds behind Alberto Contador after 3,570 kilometres in the saddle, and 2008 at 58 seconds behind Carlos Sastre.
"When you are going to win the Tour you look at every aspect. Part of that is the material, especially in climbing and most of all time-trialling [when you also] look at the wheels and position, and position the bike allows the rider to be in."
Evans became Australia's first and so far only Tour champion while racing for the American BMC Racing Team. That same team, whose main sponsor, BMC, is a Swiss bike manufacturer, will be led in this year's Tour that starts in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Saturday by another Australian, Richie Porte, who will ride the new BMC Teammachine SLR01. The bike is a third-generation model of a version Evans raced to win in 2011.
Porte, who trained on the new bike for two weeks before first racing it at the Critérium du Dauphiné in France this month, lauded the bike. He said it is "stiff and feels good in the descents but fast on the uphills as well. ... It looks good as well. ... It's the bike that we needed to have."
Other teams also launched new bikes at the Critérium du Dauphiné, including Quick-Step Floors and Bora-Hansgrohe (specialized bicycles), Trek-Segafredo (Trek), Bahrain-Merida (Merida) and FDJ (Lapierre). But one team that did not was Sky, led by British triple Tour champion Chris Froome. The British team launched the Pinarello Dogma F10 (marked up from the F8 of last year) in January, when the manufacturer said the updated model was stiffer, lighter and more aerodynamic; an excited Froome labeled it as "a natural-born winner."
Still, with so much time, money and research invested in developing a Tour bike, one wonders if it would be possible to save the vast resources used and win the Tour on an old model, such as the one Evans raced.
"Maybe," says Evans, a global ambassador for BMC bicycles.
"We have just released the third generation of the bike I won on, so I know them well. The bike is [about] absolute performance and better, but I think we are so much at the [point of] maximising the potential of manufacturing and technology that developments as improvements go on are smaller. Biggest, I think, between the bike I raced and now is that weight is reduced slightly, rigidity and energy transfer is better. We have a minimum weight limit on the bikes, and the biggest change is what can be done under that weight.
"There have been [UCI] rule changes, and I don't know if the time-trial bike I rode on is still within the rules. But for the most part you probably could still win the Tour on my bike."
That said, Evans believes it is far-fetched to expect a rider could win the Tour on a bike like those used by Belgian superstar Eddy Merckx, who claimed the race five times in his professional career that spanned from 1965 to 1978.
"No, the disadvantages would become very substantial," Evans says, citing frames, tires and wheels as key development areas since Merckx's days -- especially for their impact on climbing, cornering, braking, descending and sprinting.
"Even if you go back to the modern carbon fibre era [for frame building] ... from the late 1990s, or from 2005 and 2006 onward, there was a big step ahead made there."
Evans says that development in helmet design and clothing material -- especially for time-trials -- has also been vital. But he notes that new bikes, equipment and clothes alone won't win a Tour.
"When we look at a Tour, Chris Froome is the Tour champion, not his bike. The rider is the engine, and also the driver of the machine. ... The rider makes up with their huge aerodynamic [impact with their bike position], the ability to handle the bike and also the power."
In a sport historically associated with doping scandals, Evans credits teams now for better addressing the issue of rider well-being by allowing for fewer race days and more recovery. There was a time when many riders raced 100 days plus a season, but that number is now down to about 60 days.
Hence, riders, who also follow far better nutritional regimes than before, now train more specifically and intensely at home or in camps under training programs reliant on the latest developments with training devices such as power metres. Riders also undergo more route reconnaissance and wind-tunnel testing to optimise their aerodynamic bike positions.
"It used to be the race program that got the rider ready," Evans says. "Now it is specific training at altitude and periodisation of the work you do to be ready for the race."
A shift in the mindset of team management regarding athlete care also helps, believes Evans. The U.S. Cannondale-Drapac team, for example, even has a personal development manager.
"Thanks to the introduction of American teams, there is slightly more understanding to a compassionate approach to looking after riders and the riders' well being," Evans says.
Which all reminds: No matter how good a bike is for the Tour, incredible strength of body and mind is still needed to win it.